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Review ~ Listening Myths

A direct, approachable book that is highly enjoyable to read.
Reviewed for TEFL.net by Hall Houston
Listening Myths

Listening Myths

In the late 90’s, David Nunan referred to listening as the “Cinderella” skill, meaning a skill often ignored in language learning research due to a greater emphasis on speaking. With a flood of books on the subject of second language listening appearing over the past few years, from the practical (How to Teach Listening by J J Wilson) to the slightly more theoretical (Listening in the Language Classroom by John Field), listening’s Cinderella status might need an update.

Listening Myths is one of the most recent titles on second language listening and it proves to be an excellent overview for both the research-minded and the practicing teacher. Similar to two other books in a series from University of Michigan Press (Writing Myths and Vocabulary Myths), it is written around an interesting premise, which is to refute some common myths about teaching listening. The book explores eight myths in all. Each chapter contains three sections: In The Real World (an introduction to the chapter containing an engaging anecdote), What The Research Says (a concise overview of research relating to the myth), and What We Can Do (two or three suggestions for putting research findings into action).

What struck me immediately was the direct, approachable writing style that made it highly enjoyable to read. For teachers who might be put off by reading a book of research papers, Brown succeeds in delivering key points of relevant research with an emphasis on clarity and usefulness.

Here’s a quick tour of the book’s chapters:

Chapter 1 begins with the first myth: Listening is the Same Thing as Reading. This chapter has a lot of important information about the differences between reading and listening, as well as some of the research on listening while reading. Brown provides some interesting tips on using transcripts and dialogues to support language learning.

Chapter 2 tackles the myth, Listening is Passive. The author provides ample evidence that listening is definitely an active process, involving use of schemata and working memory. Brown recommends using pre-listening activities to activate schemata for students.

Chapters 3 and 4 (Listening Equals Comprehension, L2 Listening Ability is Easily Acquired) both focus on what is called bottom-up listening (determining meaning by listening to sounds, words, grammatical patterns). These two chapters demonstrate the numerous difficulties students face listening in a second language, including breaking up a steady stream of words, word recognition, speech rate, and pragmatics. Chapter 4 ends with a much-needed review of the preceding chapters, such as a summary of the problems students have with listening, and more suggestions for pre-listening tasks, including both top-down and bottom-up tasks.

Chapter 5, Listening Means Listening to Conversations, encourages teachers to consider listening tasks other than conversations. He specifically covers videos and dictations, presenting a number of studies that suggest playing L2 subtitles along with movies can improve comprehension. I especially enjoyed the section on dictation and dictogloss, as I use those frequently in my lessons. The chapter concludes with some practical notes on using dictation, dictogloss and stories in the classroom.

Chapter 6 covers the myth Listening is an Individual, In-the-Head Process. Here Brown points out the interactive side of listening by reviewing some of the cognitive studies and sociocultural studies on interaction. He also includes a lot of information on effective speaking tasks.

In Chapter 7, Brown addresses the myth Listen Only to Authentic Materials. This chapter covers some of the basic issues of authenticity in ELT materials. He makes a good argument for using authentic materials, and suggests some good sources available on the Internet, including online news websites, ESL websites with audio files, and YouTube.

The final chapter, Chapter 8, Listening Can’t Be Taught, is all about teaching listening strategies. He presents a number of studies which suggest that training students to develop listening strategies can improve comprehension.

One thing I enjoyed about reading Listening Myths was the organization of the book. Brown goes to great lengths to link the chapters together, even providing a review section in Chapter 4. This makes the content much easier to absorb and retain.

Another winning feature is the quick lists of teaching ideas in some of the What We Can Do sections. For example, Chapter 1 contains 10 ways to vary dialogues in pair work, while Chapter 4 lists over 25 listening tasks.

Listening Myths is a user-friendly book that will appeal to both researchers and teachers. Second language researchers will find this book a handy starting point for examining the research on listening. Teachers will enjoy not only the teaching suggestions, but also the explanations of the underlying principles, which might ultimately motivate teachers to do their own research.

Reviewed by Hall Houston for TEFL.net November 2011
Hall Houston teaches at Kainan University in Taiwan. His articles have been published in periodicals such as It's for Teachers, Modern English Teacher and English Teaching Professional. His book, The Creative Classroom: Teaching Languages Outside the Box, was published in 2007 and his most recent book is Provoking Thought: Memory and Thinking in ELT.

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TEFL.net : TEFL Book Reviews : Skills: Listening : Review ~ Listening Myths